Speaking out is key. So is feeling comfortable and safe enough to speak out.
That’s the message we’ve heard more than once this week about childhood sexual abuse.
From the damning testimony in the Jerry Sandusky trial to the harrowing account of the allegations of rampant abuse at an elite private school in the New York Times Magazine this past weekend to the news today that a former Manassas elementary school employee pleaded guilty to abusing boys, the common denominator is that accusers found the courage to speak out.
There are other common denominators in these stories, too, common themes that anyone who cares about children may be able to learn from.
Each of them involve alleged predators who targeted more vulnerable children, those with troubled backgrounds, social awkwardness or few trusted adults in their lives. In other words, those less likely to speak out.
The allegations outlined in each case are also old.
The accusers now taking the stand in the Sandusky case are adults. In the Manassas case, Steffon Rodney Christian pleaded guilty to several acts of abuse, dating to 1981.
In the New York Times piece, “Prep-School Predators” by Amos Kamil, an alumnus from New York’s Horace Mann School delved into 20- and 30-year-old rumors of abuse. At least one of the alleged victims now is the father of a student there.
Another link: The abuse was said to continue for years and the accused are said to have targeted child after child after child. The abuse ceased, in most cases, only after one strong victim told a trusted, and trustworthy, adult.
There were exceptions even after official allegations were leveled where school officials may have protected highly prized employees. And that points at the last link that all these cases involve.
They all occurred in cultures that allowed suspicious behavior to pass as “eccentric,” where adults ignored signs and avoided asking hard questions. The accused left their positions only after leaving a trail of ever more obvious clues.
We may be tempted to think that these cultures were isolated, that there was something about Penn State or lauded athletic programs or Horace Mann or private schools that allowed this sort of aberrant behavior. But it’s hard to make the case that there was something so different about suburban Manassas.
Probably more accurate is the conclusion that these places weren’t that different after all.
Many of us would like to think times have changed enough that we are more alert now to signs of abuse. We want to think that a child might feel more comfortable talking about a wrong done to him or her.
This may be true. But experts urge parents to understand that they have a role in further changing this culture.
The Manassas case was triggered after a victim saw the coverage of the Penn State case and was moved to report the past abuse. His tip led to an investigation that turned up at least 10 more victims. The explosion of coverage might also be the right time for parents to talk with a child.
If abuse is suspected, a good resource for how to start this conversation is the Rape Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN).
There are other good guides on how a parent might approach a more general discussion, such as the group Stop it Now.
Or a parent can start by following the advice of Michele Booth Cole, executive director of Safe Shores-the D.C. Children’s Advocacy Center, and Giselle L. Pelaez, executive director of the Center for Alexandria’s Children, who yesterday called for more attention to the issue.
Together, they urged parents to resolve to be “more attuned to their children’s emotional needs and filling those needs in healthy ways. Parents also need to know who’s supervising their children. Get to know the people and institutions that are caring for your kids.”
And, they said, if they haven’t been doing so already, it’s time for parents to “talk openly, honestly and regularly with your kids, using age-appropriate language about boundaries.”
Have you spoken with your child about the high-profile abuse cases?